Why Support and Good Mental Health Matters
- “Happy Days” actor Henry Winkler, 78, says he regrets not being “present” and as supportive as possible amid his wife’s breast cancer journey. He admitted he still had mental health struggles of his own, which he addressed with the help of a therapist.
- Research published in The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine studied the impact of a cancer diagnosis or disease on family members. It found, “Most chronic diseases have similar effects on family members including psychological and emotional functioning, disruption of leisure activities, effect on interpersonal relationships, and financial resources.”
- Winkler’s wife, Stacey Weitzman, 76, underwent a double mastectomy to treat her cancer. This procedure typically takes roughly two hours to remove both breasts and eliminate the cancer. If a woman opts to have reconstructive surgery after the mastectomy, surgeons either use an implant or take tissue from elsewhere on the body.
- Sometimes, a cancer diagnosis can strengthen a relationship. Psychologist Dr. Marianna Strongin recommends cancer patients surround themselves with people who care for and support them throughout treatment while also acknowledging their limits on what they can handle.
- Certain triggers like stress, traumatic events, or changes in your physical health can affect your mental health. For cancer patients, a diagnosis undoubtedly impacts their mental health.
- Genetic testing can help determine the best course of mental health treatment for people struggling with anxiety and depression. The test can give doctors a profile of how a person will likely respond to different psychiatric medications.
“Fonzie” actor from the 1970s sitcom “Happy Days” Henry Winkler, 78, admitted some years ago that he could have been a better caregiver. Winkler was known for his calm, slick persona on-screen, but he’s dealt with several private struggles over the years affecting his mental health.
His long-time wife, Stacey Weitzman, 76, battled breast cancer twice, and amid her journey, Winkler says he wasn’t as supportive as he could have been throughout. On the heels of his wife’s cancer, he also untangled long-standing childhood trauma with the help of therapy.Read More
“A double mastectomy typically takes about two hours for the cancer part of the operation, the removing of the tissue,” Dr. Elisa Port, Chief of Breast Surgery at Mount Sinai Health System, tells SurvivorNet. “The real length, the total length of the surgery, can often depend on what type of reconstruction [a patient] has.”
READ MORE: An Overview of Breast Cancer Treatment
If you’re considering a double mastectomy, these may be questions you ask your doctor ahead of time:
- What can I do to prepare for a double mastectomy?
- What happens before and after the procedure?
- What are the benefits of using implants over my tissue and vice versa?
- What will recovery look like after the procedure?
As his wife was undergoing breast cancer treatment, Winkler says he could have been more present.
“I went to her chemotherapy infusions, but my support consisted of falling asleep in the chair…I was not there. I’m not proud of that,” he said in an interview with AARP. He also said he kept acting rather than staying by her while she recovered.
After Weitzman was declared cancer-free, Winkler turned his attention to working on himself. He said his withdrawals towards parts of his life stemmed from childhood traumas he never appropriately dealt with.
“I had covered that up with a Chernobyl-like layer of cement and let it sit…I’ve spent years diffing in, jackhammering that cement into small pieces,” he admitted.
He underwent therapy to help him deal with those traumas, resulting in his mental health making significant progress.
“If I were to give a gift to my therapist, I would have to give her something as big as a skyscraper,” he said to People Magazine.
He added that therapy helped him reclaim his identity, which at times was often linked to his on-screen characters, leaving him “emotionally disconnected.”
Helping You Manage Your Mental Health
- How to Be Realistically Optimistic: Coping With Mental Health Long-Term
- Mental Health and Cancer — The Fight, Flight or Freeze Response
- How to Handle the Emotional Toll of Caring for a Loved One With Cancer: Prioritizing Your Mental Health
- Mental Health: Coping With Feelings of Anger
- SN & You Presents Mental Health: Coping With Emotions
Supporting a Spouse During Cancer
Winkler’s vulnerability surrounding his wife’s breast cancer diagnosis is heartwarming. Although he regrets his emotional availability during her cancer journey, every spouse supporting a partner faced with cancer reacts differently. A life-altering diagnosis can impact the patient and their loved ones emotionally and physically.
Research published in The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine studied the impact of a cancer diagnosis or disease on family members. It found, “Most chronic diseases have similar effects on family members including psychological and emotional functioning, disruption of leisure activities, effect on interpersonal relationships, and financial resources.”
Feelings of “helplessness, lack of control, guilt, anger, embarrassment” are some common emotions parents, siblings, and other relatives within the household of someone battling a health condition may experience, according to researchers.
MacMillan Cancer Support, a charity that advocates for cancer patients, says communication is a vital tool in helping support a partner with cancer, and it could help a couple understand each other better.
“It can help to ask your partner what support they would like and find useful. This makes sure you help where it is most wanted and needed. It can also help you avoid misunderstandings,” the charity said.
Communicating your feelings is something licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Marianna Strongin also believes is vital to helping couples dealing with a cancer diagnosis.
She adds that people faced with cancer should “surround [themselves] with individuals who care and support [them]” throughout treatment while also acknowledging their limits on what they can handle.
“Going through [cancer] treatment is a very vulnerable and emotionally exhausting experience,” Dr. Strongin wrote in a column for SurvivorNet. “Noticing what you have strength for and what is feeling like too much [is] extremely important to pay attention to as you navigate treatment.”
Managing Your Mental Health
Your mental health affects how you think, feel, and behave. Certain triggers like stress, traumatic events, or changes in your physical health can affect your mental health.
For cancer patients, a diagnosis undoubtedly impacts their mental health. If you are diagnosed with cancer or other chronic disease, you should be mindful of your mental health because it can affect your overall prognosis.
“For long-term mental health and living with cancer, flexibility is really at the core of how to manage long-term mental health,” says New York-based psychologist Dr. Samantha Boardman.
Dr. Boardman suggests asking yourself questions about how you deal with stressful situations to see if they’re working or need adjusting.
“Are your coping strategies in the way that you’re using them now? Are they as effective as they were in the past? Take a look at your beliefs. Do you have any fixed beliefs that are counterproductive and are impeding you from taking positive steps?” Dr. Boardman said.
Genetic testing is successful in matching patients with the proper medication to offset bouts of anxiety or depression.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
If you find yourself struggling with a diagnosis or helping a loved one cope with their emotions, consider asking your doctor the following questions:
- How can I go about improving my outlook/mental health?
- Are there any activities I can do to encourage positive feelings?
- When should I seek other interventions if I’m still struggling?
- What are the steps to finding a different therapist if the one I’m using is not working out?